Ursula M. Burns’ rise to as the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company is inspiring. Though Burns was raised in a New York housing project, she made her way to the top of the business world and past the lowered expectations placed upon her. Burns was born September 20, 1958 to Panamanian parents and raised in the Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Raised primarily by her mother, Burns attended Catholic school and had modest dreams of becoming a teacher, nun, or nurse. Burns says she was told that she wouldn’t be successful because she was a poor Black girl. Instead, that reality motivated her. She entered the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering, graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1980.
Burns began in chemical engineering but struggled until she changed her major. Though being the only Black woman in a class full of white men did come with some obstacles, she made it through.
The following year, Burns graduated from the Columbia University School of Engineering with a master’s in mechanical engineering as well. While in school, Burns interned at the Xerox Corporation. She impressed one senior executive so much he hired Burns as his executive assistant in 1990. She nearly left Xerox to marry her husband, Lloyd Bean, but decided to stay.
Her diligence paid off as she became the executive assistant for then-CEO and chairperson Paul Allaire. Burns worked her way up the ladder, forging a strong relationship with former CEO Anne Mulcahy. The two were quite close and when Mulcahy stepped down in 2009, Burns was named Xerox’s CEO. The following year, Mulcahy, who also served as chairperson, stepped down and Burns was appointed to that role as well.
Burns is proud that during her tenure, Xerox has kept pace in the technology world despite enormous competition. In 2014, Forbes magazine named Burns #22 on its “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” list. Burns sits on several corporate boards and relishes her position as a role model for young people of color.
In 2010, President Barack Obama named her as the Vice Chair of his Export Council. Burns also serves as founding board director for the Change The Equation group, which focuses on improving education, most especially in the STEM fields.